When snow gives way: No longer just powder

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Give Colorado Mountain College instructor Cody Perry just a few hours of your time, and you’ll never look at snow the same.

photo

Ben Ingersoll

I know I don’t.

Until this winter, I’ve never lived in a snowy city. I’ve always had to make decent road trips just to see some snow.

So for the past few months, I’ve been breaking some cardinal advice Perry gave his class, something he reiterated from Day 1.

“What we find up there on the mountains are sometimes the most unexpected things,” Perry said less than 30 minutes into his first lecture. “And that’s what this class, more than anything, is going to do for you guys. You guys are going to see the world deeper than simple snow on mountains.”

Until Jan. 14, the date of the first class, that’s all it really was for me — snow on mountains that had recently eclipsed 200 inches at Steamboat Ski Area. “Let’s go ride!” I’d say, never paying much attention to what might lurk beneath my board and feet.

We’ve had 12 straight sunny days in the picturesque landscape many of us call home. And on the next powder day we get — cross your fingers — instead of grabbing my snowboard and sprinting to the nearest bus to the ski area, I have a feeling I will be thinking about what is happening in the backcountry.

How will nearly two weeks of sun-baked snow mesh with the latest storm slab? Is there wind, and if so, where is it coming from, and how will that add to the danger? If the worst happens and backcountry travelers get trapped in a slide, will they be prepared?

There’s no telling whether, if the worst does happen, Perry and guest instructor Mike Arnold’s course would have saved fatality numbers from rising. Perry told the class on the very first day that he essentially was handing them “a loaded gun,” and how they approach the backcountry after the course ends is totally up to them.

The effort to learn backcountry safety is important, and for the 12 students enrolled in Outdoors 168 this semester at CMC, they are now just a little bit ahead of the curve. Practice, though, is essential. Observing the conditions almost religiously is imperative, as well.

The backcountry is a dangerous desire at its core. There is no hiding from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center statistics.

Avalanche-related deaths have seen a steady climb — sometimes drastic between seasons — during the past 50 years. People are going bigger and bolder, and their access to unstable terrain never has been easier.

But hop on the CAIC website every so often, even if you’re just making a trip to the ski area for a few runs. Study the terrain, understand its behavior and poke around the powder a little bit once you’re up there.

It’s OK to go big. The uncharted snow should be an adventure — a safe and studied one at that.

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